Saturday, August 13, 2011

Things as they are ...

I was discussing some issues regarding tornado preparedness with my wife, Vickie, this morning. She was describing some problems she knew about where incompetent, power-hungry nitwits had kissed asses to obtain their way, and thereby managed to render hopelessly inadequate certain storm preparedness levels in a place where many lives would be at stake should they ever be hit by a storm. This topic had been brought up in some email correspondence she'd had with a friend of mine, This friend of mine has a resume of qualifications that any sensible person should be eager to add to their staff, but he inexplicably has trouble getting prospective employers even to return his phone calls and emails. He's not my only friend with this sort of problem, and it truly saddens me when qualified, competent people are not given the opportunity to contribute while nitwits and the mediocre sit in their rightful place.

This got me to mulling over something that's bothered me all my life. When I was a boy, I imagined that all the strange, contradictory, and outright stupid things I saw around me might begin to make more sense, once I got older and could learn about the whys and wherefores about things as they are. My imagination was to prove to be totally wrong! As I've grown older, and indeed have learned more about how things really are, for the vast majority of instances, my lack of respect for things as they are has increased well beyond what it was when I was a boy! For the most part, things are worse than I imagined!! This is a pervasive problem that's everywhere - schools, government, the private sector - everywhere!! There's no paradise to be found anywhere, because all organizations are run by fallible, often stupid, and unqualified people!

Call me a cynic, if it makes you feel better. The difference between me and a cynic is that I've never completely given up hope that things as they are could be transformed into things as they should be. In my view of how things should be, incompetent nitwits should be struggling to find work, whereas the most competent, qualified people should be filling all positions of importance. Policies and processes within organizations shouldn't be driven by office politics and petty human jealousies, but rather reflect the realities they're intended to serve. Real accomplishments should be given their due, whereas sham accomplishments with no reality behind them other than someone's ego should never be given any significance. Awards recognizing performance should be going to those who truly have earned them, not to pretenders who didn't do anything to earn them other that to find the right ass to kiss, or learn the gamemanship in their organization.

O.K., call me an idealistic dreamer, if it makes you feel better. It always seemed to me that if I give in to cynicism, then the worst possible outcome results: I become what I've always despised. I become one of those organizational naysayers who resists every possible change because they're convinced it wouldn't work, or it messes with their power trip in the office, or it makes them look bad if policies actually need changing. Cynics are simply disillusioned idealists, who wind up contributing to the very aspects of things as they are that caused them to become cynical in the first place.

I'm not a cynic, but a realist. I know how things are in situations that matter to me - learning "the rules" (the real rules, which don't necessarily match what's down on paper) is an adaptive strategy that has always been helpful. I'm not usually in a position to make the rules, but it always seemed to me that if I wanted to accomplish something, I had to understand the rules well enough to find work-arounds, if possible. By being willing to pull no punches in pointing out things as they are, I've been in trouble of one sort or another many times during my professional career. So be it. As I discussed in a recent blog, I make no apologies for that!

To the extent that you have the energy and the will, you should never give up working for positive change, no matter how many times you're beaten down by the bastards who are responsible for things as they are. If you truly wish someday to see things as they should be, you should never, ever give up that hope. Don't sacrifice your principles for the dross of "job advancement" or the fear of vengeance from the coneheads. I'm over 65 and I don't believe I've ever given up any of my principles for the sake of some prize the system could offer me, or by the threat of some punishment. I certainly haven't succeeded in every battle I fought, but I've never given up the hope that someone smarter than me, with more energy and perhaps a key insight, can finally achieve those things I've failed to accomplish.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Death by ignorance

My career in meteorology began with the apparently simple goal of becoming a severe storms meteorologist. Along the way, I began to study not just the meteorology of severe storms but also the statistics of specific severe storm events, including the fatalities associated with each storm. I’ve learned that understanding why fatalities occur isn’t just about the storms and the forecast. We meteorologists could issue pretty much perfect forecasts and yet people still will die as a result of storms when they hit populated areas. Why is that?

It’s fatalities that justify the cost associated with studying severe storms. Society invests its resources in our research with the hope that increasing our understanding of storms will result in improved forecasts, in turn resulting in reductions of fatalities associated with storms. Perhaps there’s even some hope of mitigating the damage such storms produce, as well. In my examination of storms and the fatalities they produce, I’ve discovered that a significant fraction of storm fatalities arise from ignorance! Not all fatalities, to be sure – there are other factors that cause fatalities: poverty, physical handicaps, age, etc. But I believe the majority of deaths are directly or indirectly related to ignorance. People drive into tornadoes. People drive into rising flood waters. People ignore severe weather warnings. Why? In part, the answer seems to be ignorance, in one way or another.

There are two types of ignorance: the first is simply a lack of knowledge. Everyone has gaps in their knowledge for the simple reason that no one knows everything. But there’s another type of ignorance: willful ignorance. This is when someone has a good reason to know something, because that knowledge could save their lives, but they simply choose not to learn. This willful ignorance has a synonym: stupidity.

If you live in a mobile home in central Oklahoma, you surely must also know two things. First, violent tornadoes occur regularly in central Oklahoma. Second, your chances of surviving a violent tornado in a mobile home are about one-twentieth as high as if you live in an ordinary frame home. You may not know point #2, but if you live in a mobile home, this is information you certainly should know. Your mobile home is a death trap in a tornado and your ignorance of the facts could cost you and your loved ones your lives! Should you choose not to learn these facts, you could wind up as a statistic. The mobile home manufacturing industry has been successful in blocking state legislation requiring mobile home park operators to provide shelters – this means they’re putting the lives of mobile homeowners at risk for the sake of their profits!

If you live in Massachusetts, which has a much lower frequency of violent tornadoes than central Oklahoma, you might feel justified in not learning about tornado hazards. Unfortunately, 90 people died on 09 June 1953 when a violent tornado hit Worcester, Massachusetts – likely many of them died as a result of this willful ignorance: low frequency is simply not the same as a zero frequency. Why be prepared to take precautions if the chances of being hit by a violent tornado are so low? Because you still might wind up in the path of a violent tornado! This complacency in the face of reality is another example of ignorance that can be (and has been) fatal!

On 03 May 1999, a violent tornado hit central Oklahoma. In a FEMA study, it was found that many of the homes in the path of the tornado were poorly-constructed, thereby sustaining much more damage than had they been built soundly. Equivalent findings have emerged from similar studies of the 2011 tornadoes - the assessment of homes in the path of the 27 April 2011 tornado that hit Tuscaloosa, AL showed that many of them were flimsy and not much more protection than a mobile home. How many of those homeowners had thought to check the structural integrity of their homes when they bought them? Most homeowners don't know anything (i.e., they're ignorant) of the issues associated with structural integrity of their homes. Chances are they're far more concerned about the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen cabinets than they are about the attachment of the walls to the foundation or the connection between the roof and the walls. But in a tornado, those structural issues can be the difference between life and death in that home. Can you really be uncaring about your home's structural integrity when your life and those of your loved ones are at risk? This recent study is not the first to point out the flimsiness of most frame homes in America. The way to change this is via changes to the building codes in our communities, but the homebuilders have been effective at blocking any changes to the very lax building codes that exist throughout the tornado-prone parts of the US. We learned in 1999 on 03 May that poorly-constructed (but not necessarily low-priced!) homes in central Oklahoma likely resulted in fatalities. This begs the question: are we learning nothing from these studies? Can we not implement policies to do something about this shoddy construction that is so pervasive in the tornado-prone areas of the US? Flimsy homes mean an increased amount of flying debris in a tornado, which increases the degree of damage caused by that tornado. It also magnifies the risk to human life from flying debris (one of the biggest causes of death and injury in tornadoes).

If meteorologists choose to accept the challenge to put their understanding to use in saving lives, it’s not just about putting out an accurate forecast with useful lead time. It’s also about encouraging our society to take advantage of what we’ve learned about how people are killed in severe storms. And our society can’t just ignore what they’re being told. People in our society need to accept their personal responsibility to choose to do something about their ignorance, at the very least in matters where their lives can be at risk!

It’s frustrating to be able to anticipate tragic events in the future and yet be powerless to prevent those tragedies. History is the key to the future, and the history of severe storms makes it clear that there will be an increasing risk from severe weather as a result of urban sprawl and more recreational use of areas prone to such storms. The tornadoes of 2011 have inflicted horrific fatality counts, far beyond those of recent history. Unfortunately, some of us realized well before the events of April and May of 2011 that there was no reason to believe that our good luck would continue forever. Events of 2011 have proven us to be correct in our forecasts, but that's small consolation for the disasters we’ve seen. More of the same is in our future if we choose to continue our ignorance.

Another atmospheric tease ...

In case you're unaware, Oklahoma and Texas are experiencing record-breaking heat and drought in this summer of 2011. The lack of precipitation goes back to last year. The rain mostly keeps on missing us here in central Oklahoma. It's been worse to our southwest, if that's any consolation (not! - their misery doesn't make ours any easier to take!).

Tonight, I was preoccupied in the evening and missed the development of storms to our west. They were charging at us and we actually had a chance for meaningful rainfall - but the storms headed our way fizzled, only to re-develop to our east after the line had passed through here with only light sprinkles to show for it. A similar scenario occurred last night: storms all around but none of substance here! As a meteorologist, I know that the processes that result in weather are highly nonlinear and essentially random. Eventually, I know, we'll get some significant rain. But the feelings of frustration over being teased with nearby rainfall remind me of the 4 years I spent in Longmont, CO.

In Longmont, it almost never rains in the warm season. Storms that develop over the mountains typically dissipate by the time they get close to Longmont, only to re-develop to the east. And Longmont is between the Cheyenne Ridge and the Palmer Divide, so storms might fire north or south of us on those topographic features, but rarely near enough to Longmont to help us. In the neighborhood where we lived in Longmont, every yard (including ours) had Kentucky bluegrass! The only way to maintain such a lawn is to water it most every day - it almost never rains there in the warm season, after all. I spent many an hour maintaining that damned sprinkler system some previous owner had installed and never felt good about it. What a stupid thing - to grow a water-thirsty type of grass in the semi-arid rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains! Almost as stupid as a golf course in Nevada or Arizona!! Buffalo grass (a drought-resistant native grass) would make more sense.

Here in Oklahoma, our Bermuda grass simply goes dormant when in a drought. It only takes rain to bring it back to life. But the drought has other impacts - the dry soil cracks and pulls away from concrete foundations (and our pool sides), which undermines those structures and invites damage. So even here, the drought has more consequences than a brown lawn! And I'm struggling to keep flowers, shrubs, and the vegetable garden hanging on by a thread with waterings every other day.

Life in the interior of a continent inevitably involves weather extremes. That's what continental climates are like. When there are few severe storms in Oklahoma, there's likely to be a drought. Most people don't realize that most severe storms actually are a positive thing owing to the mostly beneficial rainfall they bring. Some areas to our east have experienced flooding, as storms have frequently developed near us only to move eastward away from us, without much rain here. Interstate-35 seems to be coincidentally located on a climatological dividing line!

As I await the eventual relief (which may be "sooner" - pun intended - or later!), I have to acknowledge this alternation between feast and famine is characteristic of these plains. The weather here is almost never "normal" - normal is just the average of extremes, here (and in most places). The range of extremes on the plains make their climate a harsh one in which to live. Our lifestyles often fail to recognize that reality. Everything has a price, it seems, and when the natural balance swings toward hostility to those lifestyle elements that depend on having a benign climate, that brings home how tough it can be to live here. In a strange way, it's a big part of what appeals to me about living on the US plains. Even if you want to, it's tough to ignore the weather here for long! It'll flat reach out and remind you - in a way you just can't ignore!!